Finishing 7-9 with the kind of issues the Jacksonville Jaguars had throughout the 2009 season was somewhat remarkable.
Very rarely looking a quality team, the Jags flipped between defensive systems, struggled in pass protection and failed to generate consistent pressure — yet there they were in the mix of things come the end of the regular season.
That’s not necessarily a criticism given the rebuild that went on (and is still going on) in Jacksonville. No, it’s more a warning that expectations need to be tempered, and this team given time to develop through the good times and the bad.
THE GOOD NEWS
1. IT COULD BE A LOT WORSE
Jags fans don’t seem to have taken to him, but they sure do have a good, underrated quarterback in the much-maligned David Garrard. Not perfect by any stretch (as anyone who watched him against Miami in Week 14 will attest to), there are plenty of reasons as to why Garrard finished as our ninth-ranked quarterback for the 2009 season.
The most obvious is how good he is on the move. His +10.0 grading ranked him joint first as in our run rankings for quarterbacks with Aaron Rodgers, with a lot of those plays forced through the terrible pass protection he received. Furthermore, Garrard played under pressure with a +14.0 grading for the 337 times pressure got through to him.
He doesn’t have the greatest ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, and the onus is going to be on players helping him out more (especially his protection). But there aren’t many quarterbacks who perform as well with such a lacking supporting cast.
2. WHY IS NOBODY TALKING ABOUT THIS GUY?
When someone poses the question, “Who is the league’s most underrated player?” PFF continues its campaign to make “Daryl Smith” the answer spewing forth.
Very rarely mentioned by any analyst (understandably, given the inconsistencies of the Jags’ defense and the small market they play in), Smith put together a superb season in which he showed he could really do it all. Whether the Jags wanted him to play inside or outside linebacker in a 3-4, outside linebacker in a 4-3 or even put his hand on the dirt as a defensive end, Smith excelled.
His run defense (+19.2 grade) made him stand out — rarely out of position and with an ability to shed blocks, Smith was a constant nuisance to ball carriers. But he wasn’t just a run-stopping machine and was second on the Jaguars with 27 total pressures despite only rushing the passer 194 times. Our top-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker (despite playing large parts in the middle), Smith is the star player on a Jags linebacker group that has the potential to be excellent. Kirk Morrison was our fourth-ranked middle linebacker in run defense, while Justin Durant overcame injuries and scheme changes to put in a very credible season (+8.3).
We’re not high on the Jags defense in general, but the linebacker unit is one to watch.
THE BAD NEWS
1. TACKLES WHO NO LONGER HAVE THE ROOKIE EXCUSE
It’s not easy being a rookie in the NFL, and the Jaguars’ two tackles were walking proof of this.
Eugene Monroe started off his NFL career with the assignment all tackles fear — stopping Dwight Freeney. He failed miserably as he surrendered 1 sack, 2 hits and 7 total pressures before battling a debilitating illness that saw him drop considerable weight. Upon his return, he got himself into shape for the last half of the season but still had some struggles. His pass blocking is going to need to get better after scoring a -12.4 (a number good for 68th among all tackles).
That rating was better than his fellow tackle, Eben Britton. Britton graded out as -14.0 with his pass blocking, and while his run blocking was good (+3.0), it doesn’t excuse the routine beatings that Britton took. The Jags need to provide better protection than Britton and Monroe offered; otherwise they’ll continue to have to leave in Maurice Jones-Drew (143 pass blocks) and Marcedes Lewis (125 pass blocks). You don’t want such dangerous weapons in the passing games being kept in so often.
2. PLAYING IT ANYTHING BUT SAFE
It was a tough year for the Jacksonville safeties. Reggie Nelson was terrible. Gerard Alexander was too inconsistent. And Sean Considine had some injury problems and learned things are a lot tougher without the Eagles’ pressure packages. That Anthony Smith and Brian Russell also saw a fair amount of playing time is a testament to just how unhappy the coaches were with the production of their safeties.
The biggest culprit was Nelson (-10.1 on the season), who almost played himself out of a job with shoddy tackling and bad angles in pursuit. The worrying thing about the former first-round pick is this is a second consecutive season where he has graded out poorly after a -7.4 rating in 2008, so you have to be getting to the acceptance stage that he’s not the answer at safety. But who is on the Jags’ roster? Right now it would appear Alexander and Smith are regarded as the solutions, but what about their performances have suggested they’ll be improvements on Nelson to the extent the Jags need?
This is a position that leaves plenty of questions unanswered as it stands.
The Jaguars are a strange team full of inconsistent performers and home to a number of unanswered questions. Can their young tackles step up? Will Aaron Kampman be the solution to their pass-rushing woes? Has Derek Cox learned from his rookie struggles? In another division there may be some leeway for them to develop and take their lumps while still being competitive, but in the AFC South they’ll do very well to break even.